It is 1957. My grandmother, Julia, sits at the kitchen table. She has filled the pot-belly with a bucket of coal and let me make a “house” on a quilt and pillows that I’ve set up in front of the stove, pulling the warmth into myself. I don’t know if today is the day that my mother will come back from wherever it is she goes. She always tells me that it’s work. I don’t believe her, and I still miss her in the aching place that owns my heart.
The morning is black and the days are slow to gather light. Winter hovers over us with piercing silence and the language of snow. A chipped ceramic statue of Mary lives on the dining room table and watches me play. I pray to her, asking her to bring my mother back.
The sound of a chair scrapping against the worn linoleum, and the creak of the floor against Julia’s shoes break the spell. I can smell biscuits and coffee and I get up from my warm place by the stove and sit down at the table, where I’m given a biscuit that steams when it is pulled apart. Julia’s shaking hands adds butter to the smooth open surface, along with a tablespoon of preserves made from summer berries. She pours me a cup of coffee, half of it milk. For a moment, I don’t think about being dropped off here again, content with the tastes of her winter kitchen.
Years later, when I remember her, her love still speaks to me in the small gestures of melting butter and coffee that is half milk, and in fires that are kept going so we won’t be cold. She was never someone who cuddled me or talked to me, but she smiled when she carefully stepped over the house I’d made in front of the pot-bellied stove and softly said “yes, yes, yes,” as if I’d somehow delighted her.
I dig and rut through these memory places sometimes, embracing the sorrow and its meaning; savoring the sweetness of love in her yes’s and my grief. I used to fear these recollections, but now I count them as blessings. All that changed was an understanding of what it took for cold hands to roll out dough on a floured sink board in the early, dark of day. Life has always been this good.
The shadow that invited me back here loosens its grip on the ghost of confusing emotions: a small child left in farmhouse that sits in the vastness of prairie and sky. I taste again the feeling tone of the time, so grateful to have remembered. Rip it right from the heart of the matter, and keep it close by. This, I tell myself, is the light and darkness, which define you.
When the plates and cups sat empty upon her table, I saw through the window, light creeping into the day. Snow fell gently on fence posts and dried grasses and I jumped when I heard the sound of a car crunching gravel under its tires as it slowly made its way up to the farmhouse.